More than 250 of the world's top bobsleigh teams and skeleton athletes will give the Whistler Sliding Centre the once-over next week, as the venue hosts World Cup races to properly test the fastest track in the world.
"We'll be testing the ice, which is the number one thing for us to ensure a far and competitive field (of play)," said Whistler Sliding Centre director Craig Lehto. "A very close second is testing all of our technology, we don't want to experiment or try do things during the Games for the first time. The event side of the facility is being tested for the first time, too, with a good number of spectators. There are a lot of things that we're testing, but those are the three key ones."
Lehto is also confident that officials, track crew and volunteers are up to speed, and roughly 300 will be on site at any given time during the test events out of a pool of 500. They are expecting up to 2,000 spectators during events.
The men's and women's skeleton events will take place on Thursday, Feb. 5, with the women racing at 3 p.m. and the men racing under the lights at 7 p.m. The women's bobsleigh is at 1 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 6, followed by the men's two-man bobsleigh at 5 p.m. The four-man bobsleigh is at 4 p.m. on Saturday.
To keep numbers predictable, organizers are limiting spectators to just 2,000 by selling tickets for a nominal fee of $5. That includes access to the Excalibur Gondola to Base II, as there is no parking available on the site. Tickets are available in advance at Whistler.com, and through Whistler-Blackcomb on event days.
According to Lehto, there is no assigned seating. Snow is being cleared, and spectators will be able to walk along the road that winds through the track and pick a vantage point.
The Whistler Sliding Centre is considered the fastest and most technical track in the world, with athletes breaking 140 km/h. A Canadian luger was clocked over 149 km/h in training earlier in the season, and there is a good chance that the 150 km/h mark will be broken in the next few weeks.
There has been a lot of interest from international media, and there have been over 100 media requests to date.
"There is more interest than for a typical World Cup, which is exciting," said Lehto.
Events will be broadcast around the world, with special interest in Europe where there is a large audience for sliding events.
Like the Whistler Olympic Park, Lehto says the goal is for the events to run smoothly but any small issues that arrive are part of the test experience that they will learn from.
"We've been hard at it since the New Year," said Lehto. "Test events are bigger than normal World Cups.... A big part of our efforts is getting the right people in place, and I feel good where we're at. It's a fairly full-scale event because we'll be testing a lot of things in preparation for the Games, so we need to overdo it."
The sport of bobsleigh has a long history with the Games, and was included in the first Games in 1924. Skeleton - where one racer goes down the track face down and head first - was included in 1928 and 1948 Games, but was not added as a permanent sport until 2002.
Organized bobsleigh races go back more than 150 years. The sport is credited to British tourists tobogganing down winding roads in the alps. The four-man bobsleigh was first on the block in 1924, followed by two-man bobsleigh in 1932. Women's bobsleigh, which uses two-person sleighs, did not gain Olympic acceptance until 2002.
Bobsleighs are built to be aerodynamic and strong, and there is a limit to how heavy they can be. If you've never seen Cool Runnings, the story of the Jamaican Bobsleigh team at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, adding weight can win races.
In bobsleigh, the athletes push the sled for approximately 50 metres, which is where races are often won. Then athletes coordinate jumping into the sleigh so everyone is seated properly, and aerodynamically, behind the driver. Athletes can default if they run too far before jumping into the sleigh, and teams that get in too soon are usually too slow to be competitive.
Each team gets two runs on the course, and the winner is the team with the lowest combined timed. Races are measured in the hundreds of seconds.
Athletes to watch: On the women's side, Helen Upperton and partner Jenny Cichetti are on the Canada 1 sled, while Kaillie Humphries and Shelley-Ann Brown are on Canada 2, and Lisa Szabon and Amanda Moreley are on Canada 3. On the four-man bobsleigh, the Canada 1 team is Pierre Lueders, Ken Kotyk, David Bissett and Justin Kripps, while the Canada 2 team includes Lyndon Rush, Robert Gray, Chris Le Bihan, and Adam Rosenke.
In two-man, Lyndon Rush and Lascelles Brown make up the Canada 1 team, and Pierre Lueders and David Bissett the Canada 2 team.
Skeleton is an individual sport, and like bobsleigh it can be won or lost in the start. According to the Vancouver Organizing Committee, a tenth of a second advantage at the start can translate into a three-tenths of a second lead at the bottom.
The athletes start in a sprint, while hunched over and holding the handles on the sled. After 50 metres they hop head-first onto the sled. They steer by shifting their bodies, just inches from the surface of the ice.
Athletes race in up to four heats, and the winner is the racer with the lowest combined time to the nearest hundredth of a second.
The sleds are what give the sport its name; at one time they resembled human skeletons. Today's designs look like spinal boards, but are just over a metre in length. Most Olympic athletes will have custom-fit sleds or different sleds for different types of courses.
The sleds are weighed before and after each race, and are kept in a supervised area to ensure that athletes don't attempt to cheat by heating the runners.
Athletes to watch: The men's World Cup skeleton team includes Paul Boehm, Jeff Pain and Jon Montgomery, while the women's team includes Mellisa Hollingsworth, Michelle Kelly and Sarah Reid.
The Whistler Sliding Centre